My family is populated on both sides by blue-collar workers and farmers, going way back to the Old Country (ie: various parts of northern Europe). Part of the ethos I gained from all four of my grandparents is “fix the damned thing yourself.”
Put another way, if that doo-hickey is so complicated that you need to hire somebody to fix it for you, you don’t need it that badly. As a result, my family’s houses have historically been a mishmash of DIY plumbing, wiring, plastering, and various code violations. We never hired a plumber at $100 an hour– we just fixed the damned thing ourselves. Or we called the old man (my maternal grandfather, Clyde*) and he fixed it. But the old man wasn’t concerned with aesthetics. Or efficiency.
Although we saved a few bucks in the process, we wasted a whole bunch of time and created a whole bunch of ugly-but-functional physical plant. “Does it work?” and “did you save a buck?” trumped other considerations like “is it efficient?” or “could your time have been better spent elsewhere?”
Going way back to the Old Country, my family didn’t have much choice. Saving a buck was critical to having food on the table– and we hated having to take the government cheese, although it made better sandwiches than the expensive stuff.**
As I started practicing law, I began to recognize the wisdom in hiring someone else to do the job. I now hire plumbers and drywall guys and painters, but not because I don’t know how to do those things. I hire them because I don’t do them well, because it takes me six times as long to produce functional-but-ugly, and because I bill more than they do, so it just makes sense. When I vary from that practice, bad things happen. Peggy and I needed a new kitchen faucet earlier this winter. Simple stuff, putting in a faucet, so off to Sutherland’s we go. This ain’t rocket science, we said. And it’s true. Putting the thing in took all of twenty minutes. Slick.
Getting the old one out took two hours. Had it been done by a pro, it would have cost me about twenty minutes of billable time. I should have adhered to the theory and outsourced it.***
An interesting article popped up in my newsfeed from the Business Journal a few weeks ago. Jim Blasingame laid out a simple three-question test to determine whether a particular task or process ought to be outsourced…
Blasingame’s Outsourcing Power Question: Must this task be done in-house?
The answer will come from these three questions:
How much control do we lose, and can we live with it?
What impact will our decision have on customers?
How much of not using outsourcing is about ego?
Now, I’m biased here, but I think much of what makes a law firm run should be farmed out. IT, translation, investigation & process service, appellate work, accounting & billing, coffee service. Those processes do require that a lawyer cede some control. But they can have a huge positive impact on a client’s checkbook– efficiency does that naturally.
Far be it for me to ever challenge anybody’s ego. I’m a lawyer. All of my clients are lawyers. And although we may not all have massive, outsized, bigger-than-life egos… it’s a rebuttable presumption. And I’ll presume that much of the hesitation lawyers feel about outsourcing is as much about ego as about fear. (Fear? Yes. Fear of a malpractice suit or disbarment.)
But we get a whole bunch of functional-but-ugly if we don’t call in some help– and functional-but-ugly is usually pretty inefficient.
* Clyde was an Air Force fighter jet mechanic in the early 1950s, and joined the union at the Sioux City Stockyards the same day he met a young U.S. Senator named John F. Kennedy at a 1960 campaign stop. I never saw a piece of machinery he couldn’t fix, and he could tune up a Ford truck engine so well that it would sing Puccini arias– it just wouldn’t look pretty. Regardless, I did not inherit this talent.
** For the uninitiated, the USDA gave away surplus food decades ago– the chief give-away being in the form of processed American cheese. It benefited struggling farmers, it benefited poor and working class families who’d fallen on hard times, and it gave conservatives a huge political punching bag. But I gotta tell you, there has never been a better grilled cheese sandwich than the ones we made with day old bread from the Metz Baking thrift store, a couple of slices of government cheese, and the surplus butter that came with it.
*** Update October, 2022: Interestingly enough, I just re-read Michael Mogill’s excellent book, The Game Changing Attorney. Seems he had a virtually identical experience– except that his situation was a toilet, and he actually hired a pro to do it. For the record, I wrote this post in May, 2018 but didn’t buy the book until November. I’m not saying he lifted the idea from my blog, but on the re-read, I was concerned that I might have lifted it from his book until I checked the timeline (because lawyer). That we both illustrate the dilemma with plumbing frustration just underpins the strength of the argument.